Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Shape of Things to Come (Military Education Edition)

If you're a member of the U.S. Navy (and thinking about going back to school) now would be a good time to develop a degree plan and get enrolled.

Senior naval officials have revealed more changes in the service's voluntary education program--changes which will make it more difficult for some sailors to go to school in their spare time, or study with the institution of their choice.

The revisions were revealed yesterday during the annual meeting of the Navy Career Counselor Association, a group of more than 800 sailors (mostly Petty Officers and Chief Petty Officers) who advise sailors on career, education and training benefits.

In a speech to the group, the chief of the Navy's voluntary education program, Ann Hunter, revealed that the service's budget for tuition assistance will be cut by 20%in Fiscal Year 2011, which begins in October. That follows a 15% cut in this year's budget, which was pegged at $83 million. Tuition assistance (TA) is the primary benefit that military members use to pay for off-duty education classes. Under the current program, all active duty, guard and reserve personnel receive up to $4,500 a year in tuition assistance, paid at a maximum rate of $675 for a three semester hour undergraduate class.

Ms. Hunter and other officials say the cuts are necessary to help the Navy trim expenses and ensure that TA benefits deliver maximum value for both the service and its sailors.

Reductions in the TA budget mean the service could run out of money for off-duty education. Earlier this month, the Navy added another $5 million to the tuition assistance fund for FY2010, allowing sailors to continue their studies through the end of September. According to Navy Times, the service had spent $70 million on TA through early June, and was prepared to add another $5 million to the account, if required.

But shrinking TA expenditures aren't the only changes in store. In her presentation to the counselor's association (being held in Norfolk), Ms. Hunter also announced that sailors will no longer be allowed to take off-duty college courses until they've served one year at their first permanent duty station.

Additionally, the Navy will end the practice of allowing its personnel to take five courses without a degree plan. Beginning this fall, all participants in the voluntary education must include credits for training; transferred credits, academic hours earned through DANTES or CLEP testing and courses remaining for degree completion. Navy officials also say that sailors with little or no college credit on their transcripts will be encouraged to enroll in a community college, and all personnel will be encouraged to consider institutions that provide "maximum bang for the buck."

Because of these changes, the Navy will only fund courses listed on a sailor's education plan. The service is also ending the practice of funding college certificates (unless they support degree completion) and co current funding for individuals pursuing a bachelor's and master's degree at the same time. Students currently enrolled in such programs will be "grandfathered" into the system.

The service is also trimming expenses by closing many of the Navy College Offices located on bases around the world. So far, there no word on how many of the education centers will be axed, but draft rules for the program suggest that only one office will remain open within a 50-mile radius. That would likely mean the shutdown of multiple centers in such areas as Norfolk, VA, which currently has five Navy College Offices, serving NAS Oceana; the Dam Neck Naval Annex, Little Creek Amphibious Base, the Portsmouth Naval Medical Center and Naval Station Norfolk.

One Navy education source indicates that only two of those facilities--the college offices at Dam Neck and Naval Station Norfolk--will survive the cutbacks. The rest will likely close over the next year, following the example of college offices at NAS Meridian in Mississippi and the Kings Bay sub base in Georgia which have already closed, or will shutter their doors in the coming months.

As a partial replacement for base-level education centers, the Navy is building a multi-million dollar education call center at Dam Neck. When it becomes operational later this year, the new facility will process all tuition assistance requests, validate college transcripts and field calls from sailors in the field. If the Dam Neck operation proves successful, the service may open a second call center in the San Diego area in the future.

While acknowledging the Navy's need to save money, critics find major faults in the new education plan. With a 25% decrease in tuition assistance since 2009, the program will likely run out of money in the coming, unless the service provides emergency cash injections towards the end of the fiscal year. The military had a similar experience this year with a new program called My Career Advancement Account for military spouses. MyCAA, which provided up to $6000 in educational assistance for the husbands and wives of armed forces personnel, quickly ran out of money after thousands of spouses joined the program.

There is also the matter of trying to squeeze more sailors into a community college system that is bursting at the seams in some locations. Junior colleges in the San Diego area have waiting lists for military students, and those lists will grow longer as counselors steer sailors towards two-year institutions. At least one community college in San Diego is working with four-year schools to handle the overflow in the local market. So, it may be impossible for some sailors to enroll in the schools recommended by career advisers and academic counselors.

Others contend that the new plan favors particular institutions over others. Currently, a single institution (California's Coastline Community College) awards almost 50% of all associate's degrees earned by U.S. Navy personnel each year. With increased emphasis on two-year schools, Coastline certainly stands to benefit, at the expense of other institutions.

While some will describe the Navy's education changes as draconian, they were certainly necessary. Like the rest of the DoD, the Navy has seen rapid growth in its tuition assistance program, increased that cannot be sustained during lean budgetary times. The service is also looking for ways to avoid losing millions of TA dollars on courses that were taken outside structured degree plans.

Put another way, we're guessing the brass got tired of paying for instruction in basic photography or rock-climbing, classes that helped sailors develop their hobbies, but--in most cases--did nothing to enhance their professional skills. With the new focus on relevance and degree attainment, the Navy is clearly trying to weed out students who are unwilling to make a serious commitment to their studies.

Still, some elements of the Navy plan are controversial and their prospects for success are iffy, at best. The call center at Dam Neck, for example, is supposed to replace many of the functions now handled by college offices at various naval installations. But call centers are often a mixed bag (in terms of customer service) and constitute one of the biggest complaints about the on-line mega schools.

Will the Dam Neck operation be any more successful, providing the right degree of personal service to sailors trying to navigate their way through the higher education maze. As one education officer had her doubts, observing that "some students still need personal attention, and I'm not sure the call center will meet that requirement." Others worry that the increase in automation (and decrease in local counselors) will steer more students to the big on-line schools that recruit aggressively in the military community. However, those same schools have a high turnover rate among students who grow frustrated over the quality of their academic programs and ineffective support efforts.

However, two things are certain: while education benefits remain an important recruiting and retention tool, they are not military entitlements. As DoD searches for ways to save billions of dollars, there will be more decreases in programs like tuition assistance. Sailors wishing to earn their college degree may find it more difficult in the future, as they compete for a shrinking pile of TA dollars.

And, there is no guarantee that the current payment rate (100%) will remain the same. One of the surest ways to stretch the TA budget is to reduce payment to the previous rate (75%). Likewise, education expenses could also be reduced by scaling back the Post 9-11 GI Bill. Before you dismiss that possibility as ridiculous, consider this: six years after the end of the Vietnam War, existing versions of the GI Bill had been replaced by something called the Veteran's Education Assistance Program, or VEAP. The latter program provided only a fraction of the GI Bill's benefits, but it saved a lot of money. If the Pentagon bean counters see a chance to reduce education benefits--without impacting recruiting and retention--they won't hesitate.

Finally, the other services will be anxiously watching the Navy experiment. Each branch of DoD has its own education budget problem, with costs growing almost exponentially over the past decade. After the payment was raised to 100%, the Air Force TA budget doubled in less than two years. Officials were stunned, with the exception of a single Chief Master Sergeant, they had forecast an increase of just 25%. If the Navy's initiatives deliver cost savings (with minimal impact on education programs), the other services will follow suit.

This much we know: lean times are ahead for the military's voluntary education programs and the impact will eventually be felt by their primary constituency--junior and mid-grade enlisted personnel who are trying to complete their college degrees. That, of course, raises another question: how much could be saved by eliminating one (or more) of the Pentagon's graduate education centers, like the Air Force Institute of Technology, or the Naval Post-Graduate School? Or paring back lengthy programs devoted the professional education of military officers and putting that money in the TA account?

In the era of the "strategic corporal," it's clear that our lower ranks need continued, unfettered access to voluntary education, with a renewed emphasis on relevance to military skills and degree completion.


Vigilis said...

One might expect manpower and fiscal constraints strong enough to induce the Navy to tighten its TA programs (popular recruiting enticements) would also impact enrollment, sports and courses of study at the USNA.


Ed Rasimus said...

Ye can bet that Tommy sees...

The old cliche that "nothing is too good for the troops" is increasingly in play.